The result you were after?

Another year, another A-level results day, another set of the usual stories in the media. This one caught my eye, though, about Labour’s plans to change the university application process timeline, removing the need for predicted grades.

A-level results: a minority of students achieve predicted marks, so yes the system should be reformed
It’s generally accepted that going to university plays a significant part in shaping lives, and the skills gained there help to sustain a thriving society. So it seems odd that at the heart of this process is guesswork – with the bulk of university offers based on predicted grades.

Indeed, Labour has announced plans to replace offers based on predicted grades with a new “fairer” system of post-qualification admissions. Under Labour’s plans, students would apply for their higher education place after receiving their results instead of the current system of predicted grades – which the party says penalises disadvantaged students and those from minority backgrounds.

My first reaction with these kinds of plans is to almost faint at the thought of the upheaval everyone would have to go through. Hundreds of universities, thousands of schools, millions of students. Would there have to be a pilot implementation with just a few schools? Or just a few universities? How would that work? Would that create a two-tier system? Could it really all be turned around in such a short timeframe? What if it all went wrong?

But then, if other countries can do it, why can’t we?

All of which makes Labour’s most recent suggestions of reforming the system a step in the right direction. Indeed, a 2019 report from The University and College Union revealed that post-qualification admissions were the global norm, and that countries the UK often benchmarks against – such as Germany, Singapore, Australia and the US – all use this system.

The OECD’s top five countries with the highest performing graduates also use post-qualification admissions – so it’s possible that students in those countries are being better matched to institutions and thriving accordingly.

Grade inflation to stop, but how?

The inquiry into university grade inflation that the Guardian told us about earlier has published its report, and it’s quite damning.

Universities watchdog threatens fines over grade inflation
Nicola Dandridge, the OfS chief executive, said: “This report shows starkly that there has been significant and unexplained grade inflation since 2010-11. This spiralling grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in our higher education system.”

I was interested to read this aspect of the research’s findings.

Increases in first-class degrees among students entering university with lower A-level results are particularly striking. Graduates who achieved the equivalent of two Cs and a D were almost three times more likely to graduate with first-class honours in 2016/7 compared with six years earlier.

There is no parallel increase in degree attainment among graduates with top A-level results, and in the main it is the institutions with lower entry tariffs where the highest unexplained increases have been found.

Ouch. I wonder if the threat of fines will make a difference, though. I can’t see lecturers changing how they mark assessed work because of this. Universities will either have to amend their programmes of study to increase challenge, or adjust their regulations to lower the proportions of firsts and two-ones they award.

I hope they follow up this research with more next year. Will this increase continue?

grade-inflation

The only way is up

Whilst I’ve not worked in the HE sector for about four years now, I still like to keep an eye on what’s going on. And I see the grade inflation debate is continuing.

UK universities to hold inquiry into degree awards policies
The report led by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education concludes that while it is difficult to pinpoint the causes, perceptions of grade inflation could erode the usefulness of honours degree classes and undermine confidence in academic standards.

Perhaps the lecturers and students are just getting cleverer?

The report found that improvements in student performance, better teaching and increased efficiency “only explain a certain proportion of the uplift” in degree classes.

I wonder what could be causing this, then.

Public attitudes, including employers’ perceptions that first and 2:1 degrees are “good” degrees, may also act as incentives. Noting that institutions with a high proportion of upper degrees receive a boost in some league table, the report said: “Where competition to attract students is high, institutions have an incentive to perform well in league tables.”

Ah.

When I was a university Deputy Registrar, I was involved in Professor Bob Burgess’s nationwide HEAR implementation group, established, in part, to tackle this 2:1 issue.

HEAR: Higher Education Achievement Report
The Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is designed to encourage a more sophisticated approach to recording student achievement, which acknowledges fully the range of opportunities that higher education institutions in the UK offer to their students. The HEAR was launched in 2008 (with 18 institutions) following recommendations that universities needed to be able to provide a more comprehensive record of student achievement.

Is that still a thing? (I note the © notice in their website footer is now three years out-of-date.) It’s a shame if it’s fallen away somewhat, as some of us thought it might, as it had some lofty aims. I was always frustrated, though, that it fell short of pushing for a replacement to the classification system that it deemed to be “no longer fit for purpose”.

Beyond the honours degree classification: Burgess Group Final Report October 2007 (pdf)
The diagnosis presented by the Scoping Group was simple – and one with which we swiftly concurred – the UK honours degree is a robust and highly-valued qualification but the honours degree classification system is no longer fit for purpose. It cannot describe, and therefore does not do full justice to, the range of knowledge, skills, experience and attributes of a graduate in the 21st century. Exploring how to reform or replace the classification system has not been easy. We have conducted extensive work to develop a practical set of proposals upon which we are all agreed.

One method I use to try to keep up-to-date with HE politics is to read Wonkhe, a website for “higher education wonks: those who work in and around universities and anyone interested and engaged in higher education policy, people and politics.”

This was their take on the HEAR, from 2007.

Degree classifications: just too good to lose
The report basically accepts that changing the traditional degree classification system is just too darn difficult and that we can only get round it by adding a new and improved transcript (with a new name – HEAR) to provide lots of extra info. […] Not the finest example of progressive thinking from UK universities. What proportion of students have to get a 2:1 before we change the system? Will anyone go it alone?

They have quite a few articles on grade inflation for me to catch up with; this debate has been churned over for a while now.

UK degree algorithms: the nuts and bolts of grade inflation (July 2018)

Signals for some or benefit for all: grade inflation in context (June 2018)

Bang! – grade inflation in TEF3 (June 2018)

Criteria or quotas for success? Grade inflation and the role of norm-referencing (June 2018)

Grade inflation: a clear and present danger (May 2018)

Taking on grade inflation in UK higher education (January 2018)

Are today’s degrees really first class? (January 2018)

Grade inflation could be the next battleground for higher education (January 2018)

‘Too many Firsts’ mean another discussion of GPA (October 2017)

Below standard: grade inflation in TEF (September 2017)

Another false dawn for Grade Point Averages? (June 2016)

REF results marred by fears over grade inflation (December 2014)

Yes, year 11 exams are challenging; that’s the idea

Tom Sherrington on the need for balance and pragmatism when considering school exams.

GCSE Exams: Keeping a proportionate positive perspective.
Despite the fact that we’ve been running Y11 exams in one form or another for decades, there is always a fairly strong undercurrent in the discourse around the annual exam season characterised by a sense of injustice and unreasonableness. […]

This recent article by Simon Jenkins is a classic example of this kind of anti-exam hysteria. It’s so way over the top, it’s hard to take any of the arguments seriously.

Let me restore some balance.

My son’s just about finished his year 11 exams, and I’ve been very proud of his attitude towards them. He’s really taken to heart the maxim, ‘you get out what you put in’.

In my view there is a healthy pressure and work ethic that endpoint assessments generate. As a parent I’ve been quite happy to see my kids work really hard – super hard – for several months, motivated by the desire to succeed; to be ready to do their best. I totally reject the idea that this is intrinsically unfair or unhealthy or that the kind of exam revision required to get top GCSE grades is superficial and temporary. Would our kids know more in five years’ time if they hadn’t sat their exams – no! They’d know much less. They have much greater chance of remembering knowledge having had to revise extensively. This is particularly true, for both of my children and countless students I’ve taught, because the exam revision process had yielded multiple lightbulb moments. The intensity of study suddenly brings things together that were only half understood before.

Fake degrees still big business

The scale of this still astounds me. All the work that goes into administering and assuring our degrees – let alone the work the students themselves undertake – is put in jeopardy if these fraudulent qualifications are not challenged.

Fake degrees, real news
But as this recent File on Four investigation by the BBC demonstrated, this Diploma Mill business is still booming and, according to the report, over 3,000 fake qualifications have been sold to individuals (and in one case a company) in the UK out of a worldwide total of 215,000 which netted a profit in excess of £37m in 2015. It seems that the investigation in Pakistan has ground to a halt “amid claims of government corruption” and sales are continuing, but now with a new twist: extortion.

Belltown University? Queens Bay University? Just two from a very long list indeed.

Grauniad’s live blog of the A-level results day

Just came across the Guardian’s Mortarboard’s A-level results live blog. “Join us for a day of trends, tears and triumphs in our special results day blog”. As well as the expected stories around standards there was this gem:

1.30pm:

The prize for most self-assured student 2009 goes to…

Ibrahim Khan, 18, who had the audacity to send us his own press release letting us know about his 8 A-levels.

The student from Macmillan Academy in Middlesbrough got 6 As in Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics, History, Critical Thinking, and Urdu, and Bs in Arabic and Religious Studies.

The teenager has big plans for his forthcoming gap year, aiming to “get the first book of his WW3 trilogy published, do investigative journalism across the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, learn three languages, and start a business,” he informs us.

“The quality of A levels has gone down, so I decided to stand out with the quantity,” he said.

“Being from Middlesbrough, of Pakistani origin, and a Muslim, statistically three of the worst performing groups in education, I think my success shows that if you keep your aspirations high, you can achieve anything, whatever your background,” he added.

We cannot give out Khan’s email address in full, but suffice to say it includes the phrase “the best”. And who are we to disagree.

I love that idea of quantity making up for a perceived lack in quality. Read the rest here.